Of the three main figures to emerge from the French ‘cinema du look’ movement in the 80s, the others being Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson, Leos Carax is easily the most interesting, enigmatic, and fascinating, as borne out by his recent successful return to filmmaking with Holy Motors (2012). Bad Blood (or as it’s sometimes called in English, The Night is Young) is his second feature film, and it’s certainly the work of a young director, headily in love with the form and aesthetic possibilities of cinema, much like his contemporaries, but adopting a more philosophical viewpoint of those possibilities, a viewpoint clearly indebted to Jean-Luc Godard, whose fingerprints are all over this film.
Now, that might be a problem for me. I am no fan of Godard whatsoever. I can appreciate his contribution to cinematic history in terms of breaking down boundaries and rules, but he’s always produced films that are desperately convinced they of their own meaningfulness, when in reality he has nothing at all of interest to contribute. His lauded 60s films contained characters who were never more than ciphers for him to show off what he was reading or watching that month. His leftist politics were always weak and felt more like a put-on rather than a genuinely analytical belief in the possibilities of humanity’s progress. Indeed, for all the plaudits lavished on him, it’s noticeable how ignored his contemporaries over in Eastern Europe were and still are.
In particular, the Czechoslovak New Wave and the Yugoslav Black Wave took the boundary-breaking of Godard’s work and turned it into something genuinely revolutionary, something genuinely political, genuinely brave, not the toy-gun political pissing about we see in Godard’s cinema. The collected works written about Dušan Makavejev, Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, and all the other great filmmakers from Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia are probably about equal to all the claptrap written about Godard. The lack of attention on these filmmakers, compared to the overblown importance of Godard is aggressively annoying at times and realistically ought to be challenged.
But with that minor rant over, I cannot deny Godard’s influence. When better filmmakers picked up his ball and ran with it, the results were often astounding. In Bad Blood, Carax is perhaps still a little too indebted to Godard for it too feel like truly his film, but yet there are still flashes of the gloriously brave filmmaker who would go on to make Holy Motors.
The story is as elliptical as one might expect from such a student: in a near-future infested with an AIDS-type STD that kills off anyone who has loveless sex, a gang of criminals convince the young Denis Lavant to steal a potential cure for the virus and pay off his father’s debts simultaneously. Whilst the heist is planned, Lavant dumps his teenage girlfriend Julie Delpy for Juliette Binoche, despite the fact that Binoche is already involved with one of the elder members of the gang. What follows is a lot of introspective, moody close-ups and ruminations on the nature of love and precious little of the action that such a plot summary suggests, not necessarily a bad thing.
Bad Blood is certainly a gorgeously shot film. The streets are depopulated, as if the disease has killed off the entire population already, and all that’s left are greying empty skylines and concrete, blocking off the remaining inhabitants from connecting, only rarely splashed with blocks of bright, primary colours. There’s an inherent vapidness to the characters’ musings on love; an especially long middle-stretch of the film is little more than Lavant and Binoche discussing romance, but they devolve into confused platitudes, both too young to truly understand it, a potentially fatal ignorance in this quickly emptying world.
Lavant in particular comes across as a young man barely able to hold his thoughts together, bursting at the seams with youthful vigour, hormones and energy, but precious little wisdom: the film’s greatest moment comes when he suddenly runs into the street, dancing to David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’, a man teetering on the edge of sanity. Who better for such a role than mercurial Denis Lavant, one of the most unique, interesting, and fascinatingly complex actors around. It should be noted that Binoche and Delpy are no slouches here either, both contributing brilliant performances. If nothing else, Bad Blood is a brilliant opportunity to watch three of France’s best ever actors at the very dawn of their careers, and let’s not forget that the film also provides central roles for other major French actors like Michel Piccoli.
Yet, Bad Blood feels like less than the sum of its parts. Its slow pace is at turns both relaxingly languid and frustratingly opaque, and it seems to me that Carax had yet to figure out how best to pace his work at this point. Much like Godard, there’s a lot of aimless meandering here, and some particularly on-the-nose symbolism, but thankfully it’s also lacking in his pseudo-political ramblings (although some of the film’s comments on the nature of romance are shallow). There are some bright moments in Bad Blood, but its patchwork of ideas, flaws, and strengths ultimately does not coalesce into a genuinely excellent work, remaining interesting rather than fulfilling, the work of a student still under the spell of his master rather than breaking free.